A portion of Salem’s Cascades Gateway Park will reopen Monday after an end to city-sanctioned homeless camping prompted a nearly year-long closure for cleanup.
The park has been closed to the public since Aug. 19, 2021.
The city’s parks department had hoped to reopen earlier, but parks crews had to repair substantial damage done over the past two years, including grading the parking lot, restoring the lawn and trash collection, city spokesman Trevor Smith said.
The east side of the 100-acre park needs “major infrastructure work” and will remain closed, Smith said.
Cascades Gateway was one of two parks where the city allowed homeless people to camp for much of the pandemic – providing some stability for camp residents for over a year. But city officials said last May they would eventually end such camping there and at Wallace Marine Park.
The park’s long closure has frustrated nearby residents who say they’ve been unable to use their neighborhood park for the past two years as the disc golf course, fishing pond and grass fields became a makeshift home for hundreds of people with nowhere else to go.
“This is as peaceful and lovely as I’ve seen the park in two years,” said Cory Poole, chair of the Southeast Mill Creek Neighborhood Association, on a walk through last week. The grass was recently mowed and a few disc golfers were playing on the course despite the park’s official closure.
“This was a very well-used park before the city just decided to throw it away,” Poole said.
Reopening the park has meant a return to the city enforcing its camping ban, though scattered tents and camp sites remained in the park last week, and some people have moved across the creek to Oregon Department of Transportation property.
Cory Poole, chair of the Southeast Mill Creek Neighborhood Association, said unmanaged camping in Cascades Gateway Park caused substantial damage and a loss of trust between neighborhood residents and the city (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
At nearby homeless service provider Church at the Park, some homeless and formerly homeless people gathered Tuesday afternoon for food distribution, water and respite from the heat wave.
Some who have stayed at Cascades Gateway said being there made it easier for outreach workers to find them and help connect them with services, and said Salem still lacks better options for people without housing.
Until that changes, the city effectively ends up shuffling people between city parks or other spaces as camps spring up and are then cleared out, said Jason Hice, 37, who stayed at the park for a few months earlier this year before getting an apartment with help from his mentor at Church at the Park.
“There are more men’s shelters than women’s shelters, but still not enough,” Hice said.
Sanctioned camping in the park began after the Salem City Council passed an emergency declaration in March 2020 allowing people to stay at Cascades Gateway and Wallace Marine parks due to the Covid pandemic.
The intention was to limit the spread of Covid by not forcing people to pack up and move constantly, and to make it easier for service providers to check in on homeless Salemites.
Poole said conditions at Cascades Gateway quickly deteriorated as the encampments grew. He owns a neighboring mobile home community for seniors, Paradise Island Park, and said residents frequently reported fences abutting the park being cut and items stolen from their yards. Sometimes, he found those items at camps inside the park and was able to retrieve them.
Damage to the park was substantial, Poole said, including hundreds of trees cut down and trash covering campsites even when the city provided dumpsters. Conditions are better now, he said, but damage to trees is still visible, with hatchet marks in some, and one cut down to form a makeshift bridge across Mill Creek.
A tree cut down in Cascades Gateway Park stretches across Mill Creek as a makeshift bridge on Thursday, July 21 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
A Portland General Electric transformer weighing about 800 pounds was dug up and drained of toxic oils, city spokesman John Winn said. City employees eventually found it at a nearby campsite in the park.
The utility received a report of the damaged transformer in late June, PGE spokeswoman Andrea Platt said. The equipment powered the bathroom and lights toward the back of the park and will take about two months to replace. Platt said PGE is covering the cost of the transformer. The city is covering other upgrades required to bring the new transformer up to modern electrical codes, at a cost of about $15,000 to $20,000, Winn said.
“The electric wiring and service to the restrooms and the picnic shelter was also completely stripped out, so we are also having Code Electric replace all that as well. Because that work is still ongoing, I do not know what that total cost will be,” Winn said in an email.
Smith said the city didn’t have an estimate of the total cost to restore the park because the work is ongoing.
Some homeless people who have camped in the park for years told Salem Reporter last August that camps became unmanageable as people flooded in, increasing crime and disrupting communities already there.
An imperfect community
John Marshall, a pastor with Church at the Park, didn’t dispute that conditions at Cascades Gateway became dangerous for many people during the pandemic. But he said the concentration of people at the park also allowed Church at the Park to build relationships and get people help in ways they haven’t been able to previously.
“People who were living in the park were honest with me about their experiences both in terms of the danger, the drug activity, trafficking activity, the violence that was occurring especially at night. I heard stories all about that and I also heard stories about having a sense of relief, at least for the time being,” he said. “There was a sense of stability in just knowing they were allowed to be there. It was this mixed experience of that sense of stability and rootedness that actually allowed us to begin problem solving on some really critical things about folks’ lives. When people aren’t worried about where they’re able to sleep at night it allows them to activate higher levels of thinking and problem solving.”
Stacey Hunt, 55, lived in Cascades Gateway Park for about a year before getting into Church at the Park’s micro shelter village (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
That’s the case for Stacey Hunt, 55, who moved into the park in 2020 after camping elsewhere in the city. Hunt worked at the NORPAC food processing facility for over two decades, but lost his housing when his mother stopped being able to make mortgage payments after suffering a stroke. The house was foreclosed on, and Hunt ended up on the streets.
“Not all of us is like they say we are,” he said. “It don’t take much to lose everything you work hard for.”
He said he never felt unsafe at the park or had other people living there bother him.
After he started coming to Church at the Park’s Turner Road facility, employees there helped him get his driver’s license and paperwork in order. He recently moved into Village of Hope, the church’s micro shelter site in northeast Salem, and said he now gets enough to eat and is on waitlists for his own apartment.
“I love it,” he said of the micro shelter. “It’s one step toward getting my own place.”
Hice, too, said living in the park helped him connect with Church at the Park employees, who were persistent in getting him into detox and then helped him get his current apartment and enroll in GED classes at Chemeketa.
He said some people living in the park stole from others, but that neighboring businesses and residents blamed all homeless people for the actions of a few. Once, he said, someone living in the nearby RV park came into Cascades Gateway with a pistol threatening people because his Harley seat had been stolen out of the back of his truck. Actions like that treat him and other homeless people as “subhuman,” he said.
“These are people that could be a daughter or father or brother,” he said.
Poole, the neighborhood association chair, said he had good conversations with many of the people camping at Cascades during the pandemic, and said many were people he’d take out to lunch.
“About half the people out here are perfectly pleasant,” he said. But a subset were regularly stealing from nearby homes and businesses, he said, making neighbors feel unsafe and destroying trust in the city.
Poole agrees that the ultimate solution is more managed campsites like the micro shelter villages run by Church at the Park, and more shelter and housing options overall. Church leaders have been trying to open a site on Southeast Turner Road as the city of Salem looks for additional sites and more funding.
“I think micro villages have a good track record and the way Church at the Park runs them has been effective,” Poole said. But he’s had trouble convincing the neighborhood association members to sign a letter of support, he said.
“At this point, the trust level from neighbors is so low,” he said. “They’ve just lost all confidence in the city at this point.”
Marshall said Church at the Park ultimately wants to see people staying in safe and clean environments and doesn’t think unmanaged camping is a viable solution to homelessness.
“Our hope is that the city of Salem and the community of Salem would see the devotion of city funds and resources and the creation of micro shelter villages and similar housing projects as an investment for all of us,” he said. “When a community devotes time and attention and resources to those at the very bottom, everyone begins to thrive.”
But he said given the current shortage of housing and shelter options, it’s unlikely Cascades Gateway will be totally free of people living there in the near future.
“The reality is that Cascades Gateway Park has been home to unsheltered folks for decades and my guess is it will continue to be so for as long as our city lacks viable alternatives,” Marshall said.
The city of Salem has allowed houseless people to live at Cascades Gateway Park for nearly 17 months, but is closing the park on Thursday Aug. 19 for restoration.
The Salem City Council on Monday held a work session aimed at addressing an impending deadline, where approximately 500 unsheltered people will be asked to leave Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks. Councilors feared that many will return to downtown.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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